I’ve just settled down at my desk for a quick look over e-mail and social media. Several posts on Facebook refer to today, July 17, as World Emoji Day. The only way I want to observe it is to write about it in words.
I don’t see anything to celebrate here. Anything I read about dozens of new emojis coming out contains sentences explaining them — such as what they’re meant to be used to say, what the new symbol has that the old symbol doesn’t, or varieties within a group of symbols (such as handshakes or faces).
Apparently, some emojis, such as a heart with a bandage on it, are meant to express sympathy. I suppose that people who don’t know what to say to someone in pain or grief — not that those conditions are so different — might use this kind of a heart. But I’ve never minded hearing “I just don’t know what to say.”
Sometimes, when I’ve said that I don’t know what to say, it knocks something loose and I find that I can tell a story or remind someone of a fact they might have missed.
We need to keep talking. We need to use words, no matter how shaky we may be at it after months of isolation.
Looking at pictures of the symbols that are coming to other people’s phones — not my mildly clever little one, which is fine for me — reminds of nothing less than the Rosetta Stone, the key to understanding ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Every time another batch of emojis comes out, I think we’re closer to avoiding words in favor of hieroglyphics — and with every range of genders and colors that appear, the new hieroglyphics are hailed as advances.
When I came up with the category Words Worth Defending, seven years and a few days ago, I never thought I’d need to write this: Words are more specific symbols than emojis. If we lean too much on an emoji, we’re going to lose the words it’s replacing.
As you may safely imagine, I don’t need to remember my mother and father telling me “Use your words.” I’m not sure they ever had to tell me that. But as I observe this World Emoji Day, I’m not celebrating it, not participating in it at all. I will use words, even if it’s just (Wink) at the end of a silly message.
If I have to send a message asking “What was that symbol? My phone couldn’t read it,” or just “What do you mean by that?,” then the original message I’m replying to wasn’t an effective one.
I feel the same way about contemporary art. I remember a large white canvas in the Art Institute of Chicago that’s decorated with a stripe made of various bright colors and black, all dripping together. I had no idea it was meant to represent the vibrant life of a large city until I read the card on the wall. Some representation! In the same way, I’ve learned that “Chicago’s Picasso” in the Daley Center Plaza is meant to represent the head of a woman — but I can’t quite escape my first impression as a child, when I thought it was a dragon.
We have a lot to catch up on as a society, as a world, whether we’re part of what’s opening up or what’s going back to lockdown. There’s a great deal of important information to share, even if it’s how to get relief from the constant threat of too much information.
Let’s use our vocabularies while we still have them.